Friday, July 27, 2012

Pro-business group endorses new tax

Wood River Economic Partnership calls for air service support


By BRENNAN REGO
Express Staff Writer

The Wood River Economic Partnership endorsed Fly Sun Valley Alliance's "Yes to Air" campaign at a community meeting the economic-development organization sponsored Wednesday evening.

The meeting was held to provide a forum for valley business owners to evaluate the pros and cons of a plan to have Hailey, Ketchum and Sun Valley levy a 1 percent increase to their existing local-option taxes to jointly fund minimum-revenue guarantees for increased air service to the Wood River Valley. The organization asked attendees to consider the question, "What can we do now to improve our local economy?"

The Wood River Economic Partnership is a valleywide nonprofit group of small and large businesses whose purpose is to educate and advocate on behalf of the business community.

"The program came about tonight because this is one of the most important action items that we can do as a community that will have a direct business effect in 2013," organization Director Doug Brown said in the meeting at Sun Valley Resort. "WREP has monitored this issue closely and has decided this is a big one."

Friedman Memorial Airport Director Rick Baird stressed the importance of air service to the valley's economy, citing data obtained by Sustain Blaine, an economic development agency that focuses on countywide issues.

"Forty-four percent of jobs in Blaine County are related to the airport and air service," Baird said. "According to Sustain Blaine, we're more dependent on air service today than when the recession began."

Baird also shed some light on when the airport might pick up commercial regional jet service.

"The last impediment is we need to prove to the FAA that the jets will not have an adverse environmental effect," he said.

Baird said SkyWest Airlines has "already applied" with the FAA to fly the Canadair CRJ700 regional jet into Friedman to replace the Embraer EMB-128 that it currently operates.

"The CRJ700 is a very efficient, quiet, modern aircraft," he said in an interview. "The environmental impact should be insignificant. Our assessment will be ready for the FAA in September."

Fly Sun Valley Alliance and airport managers said they would like to initiate regional jet service as soon as possible to more easily draw flights from existing and new target markets, including perhaps a direct flight from San Francisco as soon as next summer if the tax hike passes.

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Eric Seder, president of Fly Sun Valley Alliance, spoke after Baird.

"There's no other Rocky Mountain resort community that leaves the whole MRG load to the resort," Seder said. "It's usually a 50-50 split between the resort and the community."

Seder emphasized that the proposed 1 percent increase to the three cities' LOTs would last for only five years as a "test drive." Then, if Hailey, Ketchum and Sun Valley voters are happy with the results, the tax could be approved long-term.

Baird said during the meeting that Sun Valley Co. representatives have told him "time and time again" that it cannot support air service on its own. Sun Valley Co. Director of Development Wally Huffman said during an interview that the company paid $750,000 in minimum revenue guarantees last season.

However, some of the attendees questioned how the three cities were going to ensure this 50 percent match. They wondered what would happen if Sun Valley Co. pulls out.

"Air service is the No. 1 priority for the success of the resort," Sun Valley Co. General Manager Tim Silva said.

In an interview, Silva added, "If you look at other resort communities that are in similar situations, they have applied the same funding mechanism. There may be a lesson there for us. This has proved to be very successful. If my father could see me now, arguing for increased taxes—thank goodness he can't reach out and strangle me. But it's our only option."

However, some business owners, particularly those who sell alcohol by the glass and other products targeted by the LOT, remain skeptical.

"If we had more direct flights into Sun Valley, we would definitely have more customers," Meg Vorm, co-owner of Cornerstone Bar and Grill in Ketchum, said during an interview Monday. However, she added, "The best way to accomplish that is a little trickier."

Her husband and business co-owner Eric Vorm said, "Increasing the LOT is the quickest, fastest way to do it ... but it could come back to haunt us."

The three cities are in the process of considering whether to put the proposed new tax on ballots for voters to consider in November.

For more information, visit the Yes to Air campaign's website at www.yestoair.com.

Brennan Rego: brego@mtexpress.com




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